UKZN is part of revolutionary linguistic research

Professor Jochen Zeller, Associate Professor of Linguistics at the College of Humanities, is part of an international research team, led by experts from the University of Birmingham and the Leibniz-Center General Linguistics (ZAS), Berlin, who discovered that iconic vocalizations can convey a much wider range of meanings with more precision than previously assumed. Zeller is also a co-author of the research paper.

The ‘missing link’ that helped our ancestors begin to communicate with each other through language may have been iconic sounds, rather than charades-like gestures – giving rise to the unique human power to create new words describing the world around us, reveals the study. .

It was widely believed that in order to get the first languages ​​to take off, our ancestors first needed a way to create new signals that could be understood by others, relying on visual cues whose shape directly resembled to the desired meaning.

The researchers tested whether people from different linguistic backgrounds could understand new vocalizations for 30 different meanings common to all languages ​​that might have been relevant in the early evolution of the language.

These meanings covered animate entities, including humans and animals (child, man, woman, tiger, serpent, deer), inanimate entities (knife, fire, stone, water, meat, fruit), actions (gathering, cook, hide, cut, hunt, eat, sleep), properties (dull, pointed, large, small, good, bad), quantifiers (one, many) and demonstratives (this, that).

The team published their results in Scientific reports (, pointing out that vocalizations produced by English speakers can be understood by listeners from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

Participants included speakers of 28 languages ​​from 12 language families, including speakers of two African languages ​​(Berber and isiZulu), and groups of oral cultures such as Palikúr speakers living in the Amazon rainforest and Daakie speakers on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu. . Listeners in each language were more precise than chance at guessing the intended referent of vocalizations for each of the meanings tested.

Zeller said: “This study makes an important contribution to our understanding of the evolution of language. Regardless of their specific linguistic or cultural background, humans are able to produce and understand non-linguistic vocalizations that express a variety of meanings. This suggests that not only the signed language, but also spoken, may have iconic origins. It’s fantastic that UKZN, as the only participating African university, and isiZulu speakers have contributed to this research.

An online experiment allowed researchers to test whether a large number of diverse participants around the world were able to understand vocalizations. A field experiment using 12 easy-to-imagine meanings allowed them to test whether participants living in predominantly spoken societies were also able to understand vocalizations.

The research team found that some meanings were always guessed more accurately than others. In the online experiment, for example, the accuracy ranged from 98.6% for the “sleep” action to 34.5% for the demonstrative “it”. Participants were best with the meanings “sleep”, “eat”, “child”, “tiger” and “water”, and worse with “that”, “gather”, “dull”, “sharp” and “knife” .

The researchers point out that while their findings provide evidence for the potential of iconic vocalizations to feature in the creation of original spoken words, they do not detract from the hypothesis that iconic gestures have also played a critical role in the evolution of human communication.

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